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2018 Energy Books

An inventor, fracking, history and the future.

If you have been following this blog for a while, you know that we rotate Mondays. And, if you’ve been following it for a really long time, you know that I do an annual book review. My end-of-year spot in the rotation comes a bit early, so you’ll have plenty of time to figure out whether you want to add these to your holiday reading lists.

  1. Energy: A Human History, by Richard Rhodes. This has been on my radar screen for a while, and when I Googled “2018 energy books” at the end October, it was at the top of the list. It’s gotten a lot of press and was well-reviewed by the New York Times. Maybe my expectations were high based on all the hype, so I ended up a little disappointed.

As the title suggests, Rhodes has set an ambitious task for himself. The book begins with the transition from wood to coal, describing how coal mining drove the development of the steam engine, which was originally used to extract water from mines. The second third of the book covers the discovery of oil and the concurrent demise of the whaling industry and the development of electricity. Rhodes concludes with 20th century issues, including the first efforts to address air pollution, nuclear energy and a bit on solar and wind.

The book is well-researched and covers a lot of ground, but it felt like too much of a forced march through fact after fact and scientific discovery. I was also frustrated with hanging threads. For instance, he describes how the French inventor who promoted gas lamps, “was stabbed to death by an unknown assailant in the Champs-Elysees on the night of 2 December 1804,” without elaborating. Was this a random act of violence, and, if so, how common was this in early 19thcentury Paris?

Rhodes also devotes a fair amount of space to technical explanations, and the book contains simple diagrams of things like the “moderated uranium fission chain reaction.” I don’t have the background to judge whether his descriptions are accurate, and I must admit that I grew impatient with them. It felt like reading something closer to a textbook than a book for pleasure.

I was interested to see how contemporaries assessed important technologies, such as the journalist who quipped, “What can be more palpably absurd and ridiculous than the prospect held out of locomotives traveling twice as fast as stage coaches!” (Original italics, according to Rhodes’ footnote.) I wonder what we’re saying today that will seem equally silly in 200 years?

In the end, though, I agree with the Washington Post review, which laments that, “There is no single idea, project or person to create a strong narrative.”

  1. Tesla: Inventor of the Modern, by Richard Munson. In contrast to Rhodes’ book, this one builds a strong narrative around Nikola Tesla, who is a fascinating and eccentric character. It’s well worth learning more about the person who one contemporary journalist described as, “the world’s greatest inventor, not only at present but in all history.” Although he’s currently best known as the namesake for an expensive electric car, his ideas are behind radios, robots, remote control, electric motors, alternating current (AC) electricity, x-rays and more.

Munson is a good storyteller. He weaves together a number of quotes from Tesla’s own writings, which provides a sense for the inventor’s raw enthusiasm. I thought Munson was generally fair, although at times the book borders on hagiography.

I was interested in Tesla’s personal relationships, including his rivalry with Edison, mostly around the alternating versus direct current debate. Edison pioneered electrocution of Death Row inmates as part of his attempt to convince the public that AC electricity was dangerous. And, there’s an intriguing description of how engineers from General Electric stole documents from Westinghouse and Tesla, which the local sheriff, alerted by Westinghouse, found in the GE engineers’ possession.

Like many of the inventors whom Rhodes describes in Energy: A Human History, Tesla [spoiler alert] is nearly penniless at the end of his life, perhaps a commentary on how poor economic models are at explaining the origins and motivations for hugely important technological advances. Tesla, whom one friend described as, “a poor saintly man for whom science was his only reality,” was not motivated by personal wealth. I’m also struck by just how many ideas Tesla had. As with many things, we remember him for his enduring inventions (AC electricity, radio, wireless communications), and not the ones that haven’t come to fruition (mind reading – but you knew I was going to say that).

Some truth in advertising, and advice to future authors. The author of this book connected to me via LinkedIn about a month ago. I don’t think I would have come across the book otherwise. But, I’m glad I did.

  1. Saudi America: The Truth About Fracking and How It’s Changing the World, by Bethany McLean. I had super high expectations for this book. McLean’s book on Enron, The Smartest Guys in the Room, is one of my all-time favorite nonfiction books – in any genre, not just energy. I can still visualize her description of the fake trading floor that Enron set up to impress visiting Wall Street analysts, with trading desks staffed by executive assistants and fake computer screens.

Saudi America was a disappointment. It’s really more of a pamphlet than a book at 131 small pages. I thought it lacked a coherent theme and insinuated malice or at least incompetence where I think it’s unwarranted. She seems to suggest that there’s something wrong with the fact that fracking companies made large capital investments when interest rates were low, but that sounds to me like rational decision-making in the face of low cost of capital.

The Wall Street Journal shared my negative reactions.

4. The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World, by Charles C. Mann. I haven’t read this yet, but my husband recommends it. He was forced to read it for a company retreat but enjoyed it nevertheless.

He says:

The book presents two competing approaches to sustainability as told through the life stories of William Vogt and Norman Borlaug. William Vogt was an early environmentalist and Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Prize for his contributions to the Green Revolution that led to dramatically higher crop yields, particularly in the developing world. In the book’s scheme, Vogt was a “prophet,” i.e., he believed that population and consumption should be limited to ensure that mankind does not exceed the “carrying capacity” of the planet. In contrast, Borlaug was a “wizard,” i.e., he believed that the planet’s capability to support mankind could be modified through investment in new technology, such as genetically engineered crops. The author’s distinction between wizards and prophets is a little strained. For example, is grid scale renewable energy prophetic or wizardly? The author suggests that central station power plants are wizardly but also associates renewable energy with prophets. Nevertheless, the author tells a good story and the book taught me a lot about some non-energy topics, e.g., the Green Revolution and the extent of famine/hunger in places like India before Green Revolution technologies were deployed. In addition, the book includes a good summary of the history of the science on climate change.

Alright, since I’ve been binge-reading energy books, I’m going to take a bit of a break and dig into Michelle Obama’s autobiography, Becoming. I hope it lives up to all the hype!

As always, please comment if you’ve read something good that I’ve missed or if you have any thoughts on the above four books.


Catherine Wolfram View All

Catherine Wolfram is the Cora Jane Flood Professor of Business Administration at the Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley. ​During Academic year 2018-19, she will serve as the Acting Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at Berkeley Haas. She is the Program Director of the National Bureau of Economic Research's Environment and Energy Economics Program, Faculty Director of The E2e Project, a research organization focused on energy efficiency and a research affiliate at the Energy Institute at Haas. She is also an affiliated faculty member of in the Agriculture and Resource Economics department and the Energy and Resources Group at Berkeley.

Wolfram has published extensively on the economics of energy markets. Her work has analyzed rural electrification programs in the developing world, energy efficiency programs in the US, the effects of environmental regulation on energy markets and the impact of privatization and restructuring in the US and UK. She is currently implementing several randomized controlled trials to evaluate energy programs in the U.S., Ghana, and Kenya.

She received a PhD in Economics from MIT in 1996 and an AB from Harvard in 1989. Before joining the faculty at UC Berkeley, she was an Assistant Professor of Economics at Harvard.

5 thoughts on “2018 Energy Books Leave a comment

  1. Nice summary Catherine. I would like to expand a bit on Saudi America (which I was in the middle of reading when this post came out). In addition to the fixation the author displays with easy credit, there are a number of other things that put me off. The writing is mixed – sometimes strong (for example, the Epilogue) but sometimes careless or seemingly slanted: as an example of the former, Ms. McLean says at one point that prices began to crater (p 25, in the context of Aubrey McLendon’s graduation from Duke, in 1981) whereas in fact oil prices remained near $30/bbl until 1986; as an example of the latter, she was quick to cast aspersions on anyone who argued in favor of lifting the ban on exporting crude oil, insinuating that these studies were industry sponsored. In fact, one of the first analyses of the possible impact came out of Resources for the Future, which has a well-deserved reputation for its objectivity.

    In the end, I came away with the feeling that this monograph was rushed to publication. Too bad, as the general theme is worth careful analysis.

  2. I suggest Rising: Dispatches from the New America Shore. This book is more prose—and about the lives of people affected by climate change.

  3. To paraphrase Voltaire, if Borlaug didn’t exist, it would’ve been necessary to invent him. The dwarf wheat varieties that Borlaug and others developed were based on known methods of crop breeding. The new technology was induced by changing factor prices (increased land scarcity) and the funding of the Rockefeller Foundation to fight world hunger. The connection to sustainability is that even with a non-renewable resource, no backstop resource, and an elasticity of substitution between the resource and capital less than one, induced innovation can not only make sustainability possible, but can render Heal’s “optimal is sustainable” potentially valid.
    William Vogt was the father of apocalyptic environmentalism and the imperative of reducing the global population’s footprint. Not sure how this represents a “competing approach to sustainability,” except as a reminder that under the dismal assumptions named above plus the absence of any technical change, sustainability is impossible.
    Btw, Charles Mann wrote a 1993 piece in The Atlantic contrasting the “Cassandra” and “Pollyanna” views on the need for population control. His book sounds like a reprise of that (very enjoyable) article.

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